Scandinavia: insight into opportunities for drug discovery

Scandinavia

DDW Editor Reece Armstrong explores the Scandinavian drug discovery sector and speaks to key players about Sweden’s place in the market.

Scandinavia represents one of the most exciting but perhaps underrepresented markets for the discovery and development of pharmaceuticals. Though not without its challenges, the life sciences industry in Scandinavia is well represented and acts as a serious contender for R&D output. 

Sweden’s place in the market

Scandinavia is home to some of the strongest research and development hubs, with highly respected academic institutes that are helping drive the sector forward. In Sweden for instance, this year Uppsala University was ranked as 23rd in the world for Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences reflecting the strong talent base the country has throughout its life sciences sector. More so, the Karolinska Institute is ranked at number seven in the world for the subjects of life sciences and medicine. 

Sweden remains Scandinavia’s powerhouse market for pharmaceutical research and development. The country ranks third on the Global Innovation Index, behind only the United States and Switzerland. In terms of industry, pharmaceutical exports in Sweden increased by SEK 20 billion in the first half of 2022, amounting to SEK 70 billion, compared to SEK 50 billion in the first half of 2021. Swedish life sciences industry organisation Lif put the success down to the government’s continued investment in life sciences and the increase in international companies investing in Sweden’s manufacturing sector. Indeed, for the first six months of 2022, medicines accounted for 7.1% of Sweden’s total exports, beating other industries such as automotives, iron and steel, and paper. 

One of the areas Sweden is looking to become a major player in is that of cell and gene therapies – or advanced therapeutic medicinal products (ATMPs). 

“We believe there’s a golden opportunity when we’re looking at companies and their pipeline – we know a lot of them are switching over to biologics, it’s advanced products, cell and gene therapies,” said Charlotte af Klercker, Program Manager for Life Sciences at Business Sweden. 

This is reflected in the government’s aim of becoming a leader in the ATMP space by 2030. ATMPs feature heavily in Sweden’s national life sciences strategy and the country has a national network – ATMP Sweden – which is developing a long-term plan designed to bring together the relevant stakeholders that are required to drive the development and implementation of ATMPs. The project, known as ATMP2030, has set targets and goals which include greater collaboration both internationally and at a local level; increased capacity for the development and manufacture of ATMPs in Sweden; effective processes for cost-effective ATMPs; increased knowledge and competence; and ensuring the ATMP sector is sustainable long-term through financing models. 

Sweden too is presenting itself as a country which places sustainability at the top of its agenda.

“We have an outstanding and unprecedented sustainability rating,” said af Klercker. “Companies who find this and who value that will find Sweden to be a great opportunity to invest in.” 

Af Klercker, who works to support Swedish companies in expanding their global footprint, as well as with international companies looking to invest in Sweden, says that when putting proposals together, “we will always include a package of what Swedish sustainability looks like and what the company will be receiving if it wants to establish or find the investment here in Sweden.” 

Funding

With so much innovation coming from both academia and industry, alongside government backing to place life sciences at the forefront of Sweden’s international expertise and trade, one would assume that companies operating in the space would have easy access to funding, but this isn’t exactly the case. 

For life sciences companies across Sweden and the Nordics in general, generating funding equal to international partners in places like the US has proven difficult. 

Magnus Persson is a physician and scientist with a background in both academia and industry, working for the likes of Sanofi on clinical trials activities and across venture capital firms in the US. He is now a founding partner of EIR Ventures, a venture capital firm investing in innovative companies across the Nordics. In December 2021, the firm raised €122 million to help close the funding gap experienced by companies throughout the Nordics.  

Speaking to DDW, Persson said that whilst comparisons to the funding landscape in the US might be somewhat unjust, the fact of the matter is that “there is more capital available.” 

Persson puts down the lack of large-scale funding down to a lack of activity from investors such as pension funds and insurance companies. 

“Do we see the pension funds in there? Unfortunately, not. Not to a large extent. I wish I could get under the skin of these guys and understand why they do not place their bets on the future industry, but rather on the current, you know, pulp and paper and steel and what have you. It’s really hard to comprehend, in my mind, at least, a fraction of their mandates. I think it would be very natural to invest in future industries.”

It’s a strange state of affairs especially when Persson alludes to some of the success stories seen throughout Sweden in relation to the country’s R&D activities. 

“Success, I think there’s it’s very easy to measure that right. In the EU, Karolinska Institute is the highest-ranking University Medical University and University of Copenhagen is number two.” 

So what’s needed to boost Scandinavia’s life sciences funding?

Af Klercker believes that whilst the life sciences sector in Sweden for instance has a strong base of companies, it has a weakness when it comes to the size of such companies.

“We have 3,000 companies in the life sciences sector. A good part of half of those are within pharma. The weakness connected to that is we have so few large pharmaceuticals. The pharma companies that are based in Sweden, are international ones, and often have a marketing and commercial side but maybe not that drug development side that really brings that key focus area between the development and commercialisation.”

Manufacturing 

Underpinning Scandinavia’s strong life sciences sector is its manufacturing infrastructure which enables countries within the region to have high exports in pharmaceuticals and medical devices. 

For instance, in Sweden, a project to help advance the development of ATMPs using artificial intelligence-based quality control methods has been launched by government agency Vinnova. The project includes five partners, Takara Bio Europe, TATAA Biocenter, MultiD, RISE and the University of Skövde who will develop will develop a new AI-based QC method that uses gene expression patterns to classify cells. In doing so this could help advance ATMP manufacturing in Sweden, adapting it to industrial requirements and needs.

Current QC methods for cell materials can be inefficient, labour and resource intensive and rely on univariate data analysis. It’s thought that results from the project could help identify new stem cell biomarkers, which can be commercialised in a stem cell assay and be included in TATAAs portfolio of assays. In the long term, the method could become a recommended QC method that can be adapted for various ATMP applications.

A key success story in Sweden is the Testa Center, a project launched in collaboration with Cytiva and which acts as a testbed for academic groups and companies wanting to gain a deeper understand of the manufacturing and bioprocessing requirements for their biological innovations. 

The Center provides a range of services and equipment for pharmaceutical teams wanting to scale-up their products from the lab bench to larger industrial scale. 

Testa Center CEO Jesper Hedberg has been involved with the organisation since its inception and is a keen advocate of helping companies traverse the pharmaceutical development process. Many pharmaceutical companies struggle on the path throughout product development, with the translational gap, otherwise known as the valley of death, being a major factor for failure. 

“That’s what we’re trying to overcome, so that we can create value also during this process,” Hedberg said. 

That value Hedberg alludes to is being created where “small companies can perform the projects in Testa Center and build their own knowledge around their own processes, around their own molecule, and build the competence organically in their organisation,” Hedberg explains. 

For instance, Swedish biotech Lokon Pharma worked with the Testa Center for nine weeks on a project to scale up its manufacturing process for its gene therapy candidate. Testa Center was able to help Lokon Pharma gain a better understanding of the manufacturing process for its oncolytic virus-based gene therapy. In particular the time spent working with the Testa Center was essential in Lokon Pharma securing a robust CMC (Chemistry, Manufacturing and Controls) road map for its process.

“When you understand exactly what to do. Uncertainty disappears. Having our process verified at Testa Center is pure risk minimisation. It’s also a seal of quality. Testa Center is an incredibly important bridge that leads from academia straight into industry. Its value cannot be overstated. Cell and gene therapy has always been strongly grounded in academia, but now I firmly believe in a future shift towards large-scale manufacture, broader application in cancer treatment, and greater patient benefits,” said Angelica Loskog, CEO at Lokon Pharma.

The positive response by Lokon Pharma is indicative of the service that Testa Center provides to companies ranging from academia to start-ups, to larger pharmaceutical companies. When asked about the importance of the Testa Center, Hedberg jokes that even though “Sweden wouldn’t go bankrupt” without the organisation, the Testa Center “provide the possibility for start-ups and academic groups that generate value faster than what they would be able to do without us.” 

Onto the wider Nordic ecosystem and Hedberg believes that part of its strength lies in the triple helix, the combined support researchers within the Nordics can receive from the academia, industry and government/public sector. In Uppsala today, these three parties would typically be exemplified by Uppsala University and Cytiva as academic and industry parties, respectively, and with Vinnova (Swedish agency for Innovation) and STUNS (a local foundation) as the public sector.

But, Hedberg states that Scandinavia also has a lot of critical mass coming from its clusters of life sciences hubs. 

Medicon Valley for instance is a great example of how the close proximity of universities, hospitals, and life sciences companies in Sweden and Denmark, can drive innovation and boost the economy of the respective countries. 

Medicon Valley is a life sciences cluster that spans the Øresund region in Southern Sweden and Eastern Denmark. In 1997 the Medicon Valley Alliance was established to act as a networking organisation for companies involved in the cluster. It now has over 300 Swedish and Danish members from across academia, life sciences parks and pharmaceutical companies. 

The strength of this cluster can be seen in its numbers, with 1,150 life sciences companies having started in Medicon Valley in the past five years.1 What this has resulted in is a burgeoning life sciences industry for both Denmark and Sweden. Indeed, Denmark and Sweden are ranked at 5th & 10th respectively for life sciences exports and the cluster is responsible for a total of 65,000 jobs. Particularly impressive is that the 29,000 pharmaceutical employees in the region for Denmark represents 50% of its Eastern life sciences workforce.

The strength of this cluster is even more obvious due to the fact that 67% of all Danish and Swedish life sciences patents come from Medicon Valley. 

Research too has been strong within the cluster with the volume of life sciences publications more than doubling since 1996. In 2021, research publications that were published out of Medicon Valley reached almost 11,000.  

Whilst Scandinavia still has work to do in attracting large pharmaceutical companies outside of the likes of AstraZeneca, Medicon Valley has its share of companies that have thrived within the cluster. Novo Nordisk remains the largest companies in Medicon Valley with 19,000 employees across Denmark and generating a turnover of 140 billion DKK. 

Conclusion 

Scandinavia stands as one of the most active and strongest locations for life sciences research. It’s infrastructure of SMEs, academia and government support are helping drive its pharma and biotech sectors and in Sweden, the focus on ATMPs means that the country should be well positioned to take advantage of what is an expanding and lucrative market. Challenges do remain, particularly in financing, and companies will be tempted by moves to markets such as the US to raise those funds which they might otherwise not have access to across Scandinavia. However, Scandinavia is competing on a global scale and despite companies having limited funding, they are still delivering on research, patents and innovation.

DDW Volume 24 – Issue 1, Winter 2022/2023

Reference

  1. https://mva.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/State-of-Medicon-Valley-2022_MASTER-Final.pdf

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